20th Anniversary of the German reunification, Part One: Escape from Eastern Germany

Not my family ... but one in the same circumstances.

Not my family ... but one in the same circumstances.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the German reunification, I want to share with you some bits of my own family history. My mother’s family originally stems from the former German Democratic Republic, which was part of the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc; my father’s family lived in the Western part of Germany. Although I grew up in the West, I’ve always felt aligned to both parts of the country. The Peaceful Revolution initiated by courageous Eastern Germans, the Fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989, and finally the political reunification on October 3, 1990, can still move me close to tears whenever I think about them.

My maternal grandmother, Eve-Maria, was a widow who brought up her four children in in the town of Halle in Saxony-Anhalt. Because my grandfather, a soldier, had been killed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Eve-Maria was actually ‘fortunate’ in that she received a war-widow’s pension (in contrast to those poor women whose husbands had received injuries during the war but died from them after it), so her family, if in no way affluent, was able to get by well enough. By the mid-1950s, Eve-Maria’s elder daughter was training as a cook, her younger daughter (who was to become my mother) attended high school, and the two boys went to middle school. Eve-Maria’s mother lived close by with her second husband, so the family was comfortable and had no wish to leave their hometown.

Then Eve-Maria attracted the attention of the Stasi, the infamous secret police. Her sister lived in the West, as did several cousins, and the women kept up a lively correspondence. Eve-Maria was approached by a Stasi agent and urged to recruit her male relatives living in the West to spy for the Stasi. Throughout the existence of the GDR, the Stasi used a net of so-called ‘unofficial informants’ in the West to infiltrate key industries, the press, political parties, you name it. I have no idea in which these male relatives may have held interesting positions; possibly they didn’t, and the Stasi just wanted them as sleepers.

Her small but contented existence threatened beyond redemption, Eve-Maria decided to get out and leave the GDR with her children. Although the rest of the country was cut off, in 1956 it was still possible to cross the border in divided Berlin, and that’s what she planned to do. Nobody was allowed to even entertain the smallest hint of suspicion (that would have meant prison, and losing her children), so Eve-Maria told no-one except her mother. Then she packed three small bags – each with no more than what one would take for a day trip – and sent the family off to East Berlin in separate trains. First to go was my aunt, 17 and recently pregnant. Two days later my mother and uncle, 16 and 14 at the time, followed. Last to go, another two days later, were Eve-Maria and her youngest son, aged 11. Each group arrived at a station in East Berlin, and then was to try as unobtrusively as possible to get on the S-Bahn (a local train service) and cross the border to West Berlin. To this day I do not know how she was able to stand the insecurity of not knowing for four whole days if her children had arrived safely at their destination.

In West Berlin, the older children stayed with relatives while Eve-Maria and her younger son were admitted to Marienfelde reception camp (the very place pictured above), where she was interrogated repeatedly in the course of a month about her Stasi interactions, and finally the status of political refuges was granted to the whole family. Back in Halle, after a few days my great-grandmother stealthily entered Eve-Maria’s appartment and was able to retrieve a few precious possession like photos and some pieces of table linen and glassware. Everything else was lost.

At last Eve-Maria and her children were flown out of Berlin on a plane, then settled in a series of refuge camps – sometimes three families sharing a single room, divided with grey blankets. My cousin was born in one of the camps. There were generous mortgages for refuge families at that period, and Eve-Maria’s widow’s pension was continued, so she was able to buy a small house near the shore of the Baltic Sea. My aunt’s boyfriend followed her to the West a few years later, and they are married to this day. Eve-Maria didn’t return to the East for more than 30 years due to fear of the Stasi’s revenge; just a year before the wall fell she finally dared to go on a group tour to Mecklenburg, where she’d lived as a happy young bride.

My grandmother never spoke about the past unless I asked her about something directly. But I know she was satisfied when the GDR regime fell, and that she rejoiced at the reunification.

Are there special days that make you think of your family history, and the way it was shaped by the big events of those days?

- Rike Horstmann

3 thoughts on “20th Anniversary of the German reunification, Part One: Escape from Eastern Germany

  1. Rike

    Tee, thanks for sharing your grandmother’s story! What courage both your grandparents had to cross the Atlantic, and how moving to read about your grandfather’s patience and how he sent three sets of tickets – almost like a fairy-tale motif, if you think about it.
    My mother-in-law is originally from Poland, and from her I know how very tight-knit Polish families were (and possibly are). It must have been extremely hard for your grandmother to leave her family behind. She must have been grateful, though, especially for her daughter’s sake, to have missed out WWII, and so worried about her relatives!
    It’s sometimes hard these days with all our means of communication to imagine how utterly final a leave-taking could be in the past. My own grandmother was more fortunate in this respect: As retirees were always allowed to travel from East to West Germany, she knew she’d see her mother again, and soon, when she left the country.

  2. MarissaB

    Great story. You are lucky you know a lot of the details of your grandmother’s efforts to be free. The stories I know are very sketchy.

    I do know that during WWII, my dad’s father was a Colonel in the Philippine Army. He survived the infamous Bataan Death March, where 72,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war marched 60 miles to a containment camp. The Japanese were so abusive and brutal that only 54,000 survived. See the following link for more detail.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bataan_Death_March

    My father was a teenager during the war, and although his family travelled a lot becuase of his dad’s assignments, he never had to fight. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush of navigating the dangerous parts of the city while going for food or medicine. When he told me this, I just shook my head. I would have been terrified.

    My mother was 16 when the war started and she spent most of those years sequestered in her room. Rape was a real threat from the Japanese soldiers who ruled the town, so my grandparents circulated the story that my mom was sick with some communicable disease. This kept the soldiers away although there were a couple of times that someone was actually sent to verify that Mom was sick. Gives me the shivers just to think about it. Mom was very lucky. She missed the beheadings, disembowelments, and other forms of punishment that every town resident was forced to watch. Her younger siblings were not so blessed.

    I am just so thankful that neither my siblings, husband, children nor myself have ever experienced war. We were born and raised free.

  3. Tee

    Thank you for your reply to my little story that helped shape my life and my family’s. (I regretfully had Admin delete it because I originally misunderstood the question and thought my response was not in keeping with the theme, but you assured me otherwise). Yours was a very interesting story, Rike—both sad and happy at the same time. So here’s mine. No special days remind me of my family tale, just occasionally talking about the past brings up the following.

    My maternal grandparents were both born and raised in Poland—late 1880s/early 90s. They married there, had a child (my mother) in 1913; and not long after, my grandfather left Poland to locate in America, where some of his brothers had arrived earlier. His intention was to settle, then send ship tickets back to my grandmother and mother to follow him. However, there were some family obstacles back in Poland that prevented their leaving. My grandfather sent tickets three times over a period of four years. But on the third try, he said this will be the last time that he’ll send them, since they were expensive and my grandmother seemed hesitant to cross the ocean. She had become comfortable in her life there.

    Well, thank goodness, she decided to use them that time. My mother was now six years old when she left Poland with her mother—the year was 1919. What a major decision this must have been for my grandmother, leaving her family whom I’m sure she knew she would never see again—and didn’t. My grandmother’s mother was still living at that time, along with several sisters and brothers, who never left the land. I remind my adult children periodically how thankful we should be to their great grandmother to have taken that leap of faith to join her husband whom she had not seen for quite a period of time and board the ship. For had they not done that, we would not be here in America right now.

    Well, that’s my little family tale and I am grateful to my grandparents when I consider how difficult life was at that time; and decisions that were made then could not be undone as easily as they could in this day and age.

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